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Turning Our Startup Into a Forest: How Working With No Managers Creates A New Ecosystem

Feb 9, 2015 2 min readWorkplace of the future

Note: We’re lucky to have the chance to experiment quite often with the way we work. Because of this, some experiments come and go. The post you’re about to read is one of these experiments; we learned a ton and are now exploring new approaches!

I remember the first time I heard about companies operating with no managers.

During a conversation about it with Joel, we were both absolutely baffled. There was no way, we thought, that Buffer could ever work in that way. How can any work get done without managers? We concluded that this is one of the things we will just never understand.

I remember us saying that possibly, in the same way that people are baffled when they hear Buffer is a distributed team, we are baffled that some companies work without managers. And that’s where we left it.

Fast forward some years later, Buffer is in the middle of becoming fully self-managed. And whenever we throw around words like “self-management” or “no managers,” the baffled looks we get remind us of how we ourselves first reacted to the idea of being fully self-organized without bosses.

How a forest is like a company

The best explanation I’ve found to date is a simple analogy that everyone already knows well: A forest. This quote from the book Reinventing Organizations describes it very fittingly:

“In a forest, there is no master tree that plans and dictates change when rain fails to fall or when the spring comes early. The whole ecosystem reacts creatively, in the moment.”

Whenever I describe Buffer’s change to someone in this way, it seems to click for many and they can relate to many of the new ideas we’re implementing.

What I like particularly about the forest analogy is that one can seemingly dive into any detail of the forest as an organism and relate it to how things work for a company with no managers.

One element of that is that things from the outside look messy, if you walk into a forest. There’s leaves everywhere, and dead wood lying on the ground. There seem to be no paths to walk and everything looks chaotic. And yet, everything that needs to happen is able to happen, almost effortlessly. The only difference is that there’s no one that controls it.

One thing I believe is that the reason we organize many things in such a rigid way in most current organizations, is because people need to have control beyond themselves. If you need to control 10, 20, sometimes thousands of people, you need a structure that allows you to do that.

But if no one is in charge, then everyone can go and develop their own ways. What follows is an incredibly diverse set of workflows and initiatives.

How would this work in a forest?

To find out whether we’re unconsciously falling back into the old methods of working at Buffer. I like to ask myself “How would this work in a forest?”

It helps me to catch ideas that might put constraints and processes onto others early and avoid working on them, and instead explore solely my own workflow and how I might want to change it.

The aspiration to become a living and breathing ecosystem like a forest is a very happy imagination in my head. It makes me feel like we’re on the right track.

Have you had the experience of communicating a unique way of working or thinking about work to others? What analogies or metaphors make the most impact to you?

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